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C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, and the End of Slavery in the Caribbean

The Trinidadian historians C. L. R. James, a Marxist revolutionary, and Eric Williams, his former student and the prime minister who placed him under house arrest, forever reshaped how we view the end of slavery in the Caribbean and around the world.

Eric Williams, who served as the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, speaks at Central Hall in London's Westminster, c. 1961. (Val Wilmer / Getty Images)

“What the goddamn hell is this?” Cyril Lionel Robert James, lanky cricketer and budding journalist in colonial Trinidad, was unhappy as he scoured libraries in Port of Spain for a decent book on France’s former colony Saint-Domingue. The young writer could find only the likes of Percy Waxman’s The Black Napoleon. In those pages, he learned the rebel general Toussaint Louverture’s

face was decidedly homely. He possessed a forbidding prognathous jaw. His lips were thick, his nose broad and flat, with nostrils wide and open. His voice was high-pitched, nasal, and none too pleasant.

Though sympathetic to Toussaint’s struggle against the French colonial ruling class, the Australian writer Waxman couldn’t look past race. His book proved a radicalizing moment for the young Trinidadian. “I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed,” James recalled decades later, “that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited” — hence his “goddamn hell.”

Cyril had the additional choice of The French Revolution in San Domingo, widely distributed by Houghton Mifflin in 1914, by one T. Lothrop Stoddard — a future Klansman from Massachusetts who lamented the erasure of “the finest of European colonies from the map of the white world.”

With few exceptions, this was the territory until Cyril moved to England, made his name as C. L. R. James, and wrote, among much else, a 1938 book on the Haitian Revolution that has yet to be surpassed in English.

The Black Jacobins became, and in some ways remains, the most penetrating psychological study of Toussaint. It shaped the “history from below” of E. P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, and countless other historians. A masterpiece of plot and sentence, the book has gripped novelists and playwrights for generations. It is little surprise to hear from the novelist Madison Smartt Bell that The Black Jacobins made him “infected by Bloomian anxiety of influence, along with the usual Oedipal striving” as he plotted his own Haitian epic.

These qualities of The Black Jacobins assert themselves in a recent wave of books from Duke University Press, part of an ongoing series that sets a high bar for a new generation of James readers. The setting behind The Black Jacobins, James’s formative years in England from 1932 to 1939 — when he found Marxism, joined pan-African and pan-Caribbean movements, wrote widely on politics as a world war brewed, and became an authority on modern imperialism — finally get proper exploration in Christian Høgsbjerg’s biography C. L. R. James in Imperial Britain.

James’s composition of The Black Jacobins ,one of many elements in Høgsbjerg’s excellent and economical study, is the centerpiece of another: Rachel Douglas’s Making the Black Jacobins, a treatise that lavishes Talmudic scrutiny upon the textual evolution of his book across editions. This reverence provides the theme of a third volume, The Black Jacobins Reader, a collection of essays outlining the wide influence enjoyed by James’s work — often justly, very occasionally not — in history departments and private lives (among them, Bell’s) to the present.

James’s place in the canon did not need restatement, but one of his attitudes, as these three books show, might have: his reading of the revolution in Saint-Domingue as a dispute of class more than color. At the time, this interpretation was almost without precedent. James is plain: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous.”

Taking Up the Class Question

This argument derives from the racial complexity of slavery in Saint-Domingue. No less than 128 shades of skin had names in France’s colony — a situation James calls “a cross between a nightmare and a bad joke.” When revolution struck the island, these castes dispersed into factions. James notes the corrosive “race feeling” operating among and against them, but he takes a tall perspective as these groups coalesce, concluding it was economic station, not skin, that guided their allegiances.

For instance: the free, mixed-race gens de couleur demanded equal rights from the colonial government but wished to keep their slaves. The slave-owning grands blancs tended, begrudgingly, to side with them. “Mulattoes and big whites,” James explains, “had a common bond — property.” So too with the landowners of African descent, many of them slavers: “this was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes.” One of the black revolutionaries and soon the country’s first emperor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had been owned by such a black slaveowner. On the other side, James calls Dessalines and Toussaint’s troops “labourers.” Which they were. The new government was to be “rooted in the preservation of the interests of the labouring poor.”

Was the plantation slave really a proletarian? No — at least not for anthropologist Sidney Mintz, who has posed this question in a different context. Enslaved people in themselves, not simply their labor, were the commodities in that economy. Oedipally, Bell finds that “James is at his least convincing when he tries to hammer the Haitian Revolution into the Marxist mold.” Bell’s main evidence is a bombshell about Toussaint that was unearthed long after James wrote: the famous “Black Spartacus” was in fact a freeman when revolution arrived and had owned slaves himself. One more uncomfortable fact: the racial retaliation waged between Dessalines and the vicomte de Rochambeau in the final stretch of independence does not help the class case.

Despite exceptions like these, by taking up the class question, James was not wrong. It helped him solve some major problems that dogged historians of his era. We still benefit from his solutions.

James’s insistence on class debunked the “race war” tack of Stoddard and his racialist (and racist) predecessors, whom Høgsbjerg and Douglas do us a service by describing. The idea that colonial plantations foretold the hierarchies of industrial labor has helped James’s successors examine more critically the economies that underlay slave revolts. Scrutiny of those economies leads to certain conclusions about the actors who made them work. To call a slave a “laborer” grants her a dignity rooted in material reality. We start to see in that worker, like “the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers” to whom James likens her, an essential agent in the creation of wealth. Intent accrues to this agent. Surely she understood her role in that creation — and saw revolt as a deliberate and most basic means of disrupting it.

This kind of thinking informs Annette Gordon-Reed’s recent argument that America still owes Haiti for bankrupting Napoleon in a failed war of recapture, forcing him to sell his claim to the Louisiana Territory, and doubling the size of the United States. To speak of debt in such a chain of events assumes some level of deliberateness by the workers who were able to upset the geopolitical balance. The idea that people long dismissed as chattels in fact acted on calculation and strategy is now rightly dominant in scholarship and owes much to James’s perspective. Or when Julius S. Scott, in his magisterial study The Common Wind, elaborates how “slave and other disfranchised groups” spread news of revolution across Saint-Domingue, he echoes James’s premise that unequal access to rights and wealth was the revolution’s prime mover.

One does not need terms like class or labor to humanize an enslaved human. But for James and his many inheritors, the failure of racism alone to explain their oppression demands a broader explanation.

Of course, modern terms such as these (which fill James’s history) turn a book about the past into a book about the present. From where James sat in the 1930s, Toussaint’s revival of the plantation system explained the tightening grip of Joseph Stalin, another revolutionary turned despot, whose “firing squads” James invokes in the proem to his work. “Such is our age, and this book is of it,” James laments, embracing the presentism that historians rotely shun but have never quite learned to escape. Both Toussaint and Stalin lost sight of their people.

Haitian general and revolutionary Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803). (NYPL)

In the Duke Reader, Selma James, C. L. R.’s fellow activist and former spouse, suggests that her husband’s eventual split with Trotskyism stemmed in part from the shared tragedy of Toussaint and Stalin: James “not only breaks with the vanguard party but identifies and analyzes the corruption in the new governing class, of which Toussaint was an example.” It is a great virtue of The Black Jacobins that it can hold both a devotion to primary sources of the Napoleonic theater as well as a sensitivity to the rumblings of a new global order.

The primacy of labor concerns was not lost on James’s audience, as we learn elsewhere in The Black Jacobins Reader. In the 1960s, Detroit labor leaders circulated copies of his book. An interracial Black Jacobins reading group sprung up in a Pennsylvania correctional facility. When Høgsbjerg and Charles Forsdick, the volume’s editors, quote a letter to James from Martin Luther King Jr recounting a conversation about “your excellent piece of work,” I noted the postmark: two weeks before King’s debut speech on the National Mall, where he would envision historians of the future and urge that the present inequalities transcended skin. “God is not interested merely in freeing black men and brown men and yellow men,” King declared, “but God is interested in freeing the whole human race.”

Where Did Abolition Come From?

James’s most devoted reader happened to be his actual student. Before becoming the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, an office he would hold for twenty years, Eric Williams was James’s pupil at Queen’s Royal College in Port of Spain.

Williams was partially deaf (the result of a soccer injury) and wore Coke-bottle glasses (the result of too much reading). Shy but brilliant, he won the sole island scholarship for his class and set off for Oxford. Williams and James happened to reach England the same year, in 1932, and one imagines the young prime minister trotting behind his teacher.

The education was mutual, however, as Høgsbjerg and others now agree. We learn from Douglas that Williams researched substantial portions of The Black Jacobins and wrote certain lines of it himself. Their collaboration would permanently alter our approach to the slave trade.

It happened along these lines: James’s emphasis on economic systems led him to some evidence that Britain might have been changing its mind about maintaining slavery as a result of disappointing performance in the West Indian economy. In 1776 the American colonies had seceded from England, and Adam Smith had complained about plantation economies in The Wealth of Nations. These events, among others, made James suspect that something about the old mercantilist system began to fail Britain. This must have been why Britain moved to steal Saint-Domingue from France in the 1790s, when unrest tore that colony. It was Britain’s final (and epically failed) bid to regain West Indian relevance.

James made an elegant suggestion in The Black Jacobins but left the question there. Williams took the baton. The year James published The Black Jacobins in London, in 1938, Williams submitted a DPhil dissertation that fleshed out his mentor’s suspicions in rigorous economic detail. (In later years of bitterness, James claimed to have scrawled the idea for Williams on the back of an envelope.) Published in America in 1944, Capitalism and Slavery ignited a long-running academic controversy. A new edition this year — a small miracle for a work of strict economic history almost eighty years old — asks us to consider the legacy of a book that virtually invented the modern study of abolitionism.

Williams’s conclusions were two. First, slave plantations produced such wealth that they funded Britain’s industrial revolution. Second, these plantations had fallen into depression by the 1770s. This depression would last into the next century. Many factors were to blame for it: American secession, soil exhaustion, competition between beet and cane sugar, the rising bankruptcy of the planter class. To Williams, the biggest culprit was the outdated system of mercantilism, whose protectionist duties and state subsidies obliged Britain to buy from its colonies rather than on the open marketplace.

Each of these settings, in Williams’s telling, convinced the highest levels of government that free labor and comparative advantage — rather than slavery — were the way of the future. The “sterile rocks” of the British West Indies (Williams pulls many such indictments from the mouths of the period’s spectators) became much less important than Britain’s other territories. One such territory was East India, where workers cost a penny a day. Another was the new industrial town that the slave money had funded, many of which were cropping up across Britain in the early 1800s, where children could be employed in the next boom.

Using historical import and export data, Williams argues that slave plantations became less and less profitable in these years. Abolition, it appeared to him, was a good way to end this tired system. It was no coincidence that British entrepreneurs turned to new business ventures in the 1780s and ’90s just as celebrity abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson gained their first ground in Parliament.

Though his detractors have called the connection circumstantial rather than causal, Williams pointed out the fact that Britain’s first era of civil rights was also that of its debut on the free market. He read the major antislavery advancements during that era (namely, abolition in 1807 and emancipation in 1833) as Britain’s slow shift toward free trade more than signs of pure philanthropy. These advancements culminate, in Williams’s view, in the removal of duties on imported sugar in 1846, an act that finally allowed slave sugar from Brazil and Cuba to overtake the British planters who had been limping along in Jamaica and Barbados.

Britain had nothing against West Indian slavery, in other words. She just knew her strengths lay elsewhere.

If it was true that slavery died a natural death, as Williams claimed in this chronology, rather than one brought about principally by antislavery activism, a devastating conclusion awaited Britain’s abolitionists. William Wilberforce and his “Saints” in Parliament, who agitated for the major abolitionist reforms, were thought to have battled tremendous odds to effect God’s will. Theirs seemed a triumph of good over evil. And they were never more deified (as Høgsbjerg and Douglas make clear) than at the centenary of their 1833 emancipation act, during James and his student’s first year in England, when the Saints were declared in hundreds of tributes as having bestowed conscience upon British industry. But if the market favored abolition anyway, as Williams now argued, the Saints merely confirmed the adoption of a new free market, casting “a cloak of humanitarianism” over economic policies that were all but inevitable.

Abolition, Williams concluded, was an economic convenience. And Wilberforce, resting soundly in Westminster Abbey, had reaped the credit ever since. (If nothing else, Williams’s indictment of the Saints, though it descends to the ad hominem, gives a crash course in historical grudge-holding.)

Williams’s grim determinism here — which casts some of the bravest activists in civil rights history as workings in an unthinking grandfather clock of economics — is as unpleasant today as it was upon publication, at the peak struggle against Nazi Germany. The severity of his judgment attests to the piousness of that centenary moment, as well as to the misplacement an islander must have felt in its midst.

Capitalism and Slavery

The elegance, rigor, and shock of Williams’s slender volume made him required reading for decades. He was among the first to connect plantation capital directly to empire — now an historical starting point. And his “decline thesis,” as it came to be known, quickly dominated discussions of slavery.

His decline theory, that abolition only became possible when Britain’s plantations naturally declined in profit, shaped some very incisive — and some very cynical — takes on the Saints and the white-savior complex. And when anyone questions a government’s pretensions to humanitarian intervention — as commentators on Haiti have had occasion to do in abundance this summer, after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse renewed discussions of the false philanthropy and economic subjugation that has plagued that island — the questioner owes something to the diffusely influential muckraking of Capitalism and Slavery.

Protesters swarmed from the other side, notably Roger Anstey and the American economic historian Seymour Drescher. In 1977, the latter produced Econocide, now a classic with its own reissue in the last decade, which seemed finally to put Williams’s argument to bed. Though Drescher was less persuasive against Williams’s first claim, that the industrial revolution could not have taken off without the profits generated from slave plantations, his evidence against Williams’s decline theory has stuck. Using many of Williams’s own sources, Drescher argued that British plantations were in fact still profitable when Parliament passed the two major bills: abolition in 1807 and emancipation in 1833. To Drescher, these reforms were deliberate acts of self-harm to a booming industry. Adam Smith’s vision of a free market was indeed on the rise in the early nineteenth century, but the emergence of that free market did not require the abolition of slavery.

Critics of Williams rejoiced — and still do. Most scholars tend to accept Drescher’s findings against the decline theory of abolition (though not all). After Williams, however, there was no going back to the old arguments that humanitarianism alone brought about the end of British slavery. To restore credit to the Saints would reek of the nationalism exhibited by Reginald Coupland, a hagiographer of Wilberforce and one of Williams’s supervisors at Oxford. The doubt had been sown by Capitalism and Slavery: If the market didn’t gain from abolition, then who did?

First prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago Eric Williams, 1962. (Joop van Bilsen / Anefo)

In his much-read “hegemonic thesis,” David Brion Davis suggested that abolition gave government a new means of domestic control: a new class hierarchy premised on the idea of freedom. Then came Thomas Haskell’s clever “market thesis,” contending that the rise of contract law and other industrial principles like punctuality and consequentialism created a new species of bourgeoisie to whom the crime of slavery became intolerable. More recently, Christopher Leslie Brown, formerly Davis’s student, used the concept of “moral capital” to explain how, “with or without decline,” abolition gave activists the clout they needed to push other agendas. Though a diplomat between Williams and the Econocidals in Drescher’s camp, Brown echoes the former when he reveals, with great tact, how the moral capital of abolition provided a sham justification for the partitioning and monetization of Africa by British colonists.

Each of these theories upholds Williams’s basic premise that abolition brought with it some market gain. And the sophistication of these views of history comes straight from the soil Williams and Drescher had tilled in their debate. Each marries two major poles of historiography — the great man with the impersonal historical force. In this marriage, it is possible to concede victory, for example, to James Stephen, author of the crucial Foreign Slave Trade Bill of 1806, while questioning his animating wish “to stem the torrent of French ambition.” Was this an ingenious bribe to anti-abolitionists in the House, or a simple endorsement of empire?

A compromise like this dilutes the enlivening rage of Capitalism and Slavery, but it also heightens certain conundrums about the past for which Williams had limited time. A balance of morals and markets has resulted in the judgements of generations of historians following his book. In this, Williams and his successors approach the vast problem of slavery in the era of human rights by revisiting a challenge posed by Karl Marx: that people make their own history not “under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” Who acts in history, great men or the economy?

James would work this problem into his portrait of the laborers of Saint-Domingue. They took matters into their own hands, but they responded to forces of economic oppression that had long preceded them: “Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. To portray the limits of those necessities and the realisation, complete or partial, of all possibilities, that is the true business of the historian.”

So too, for Williams, with the centuries-long rise of the free market: “These economic changes are gradual, imperceptible, but they have an irresistible cumulative effect. Men, pursuing their interests, are rarely aware of the ultimate results of their activity.” The historians working after James and Williams have pulled these interested parties, moneymakers, and abolitionists alike further into the light of conscious action.

An End to One of the Caribbean’s Great Intellectual Partnerships

In the 1960s, the two men fell out in public. Williams was now the populist founding father of Trinidad, having fomented the People’s National Movement with soapbox-style lectures on colonial history at Woodford Square in the capital. Clad in dark sunglasses, a black suit, and a prominent electric hearing aid, Williams now seemed like a prophet with X-ray vision into the inner workings of imperialism.

This reputation owed much to his legendary dismantlings in Capitalism and Slavery, and much to his old teacher. James had helped him rise, having edited the party’s newspaper and served as something of an historical conscience. Author of that liberation manifesto The Black Jacobins, James had built a through line from the greatest uprising of the colonial West Indies to the independence movements now sweeping through the 1950s. He gave weight and precedent to the new struggle. But in time James decided the party excluded hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians of East Indian descent and pursued a timid economic program. With the aim of uniting Afro- and Indo-Trinidadian workers, he quit, and when he started his rival Workers and Farmers Party, Williams placed him under house arrest.

They never reconciled, and both men died in the 1980s. Their political clash cut short one of the great intellectual partnerships in Caribbean history.